People live in small worlds inside their bigger worlds—even when their bigger worlds aren’t that big. Co-writer and first-time director Agnès Jaoui’s The Taste of Others is set in an unnamed provincial French city (it was filmed in Rouen), but it could just as easily occur in an insular slice of Paris or any place else where folks prefer other folks like themselves.

The narrative turns on several circles, and how their orbits overlap isn’t immediately clear. The film opens at a cafe, where two working-class men debate social corruption while—as a lengthy Steadicam shot establishes—a woman entreats her businessman husband (in vain) to skip dessert. It’s soon revealed that Moreno (Gérard Lanvin) and Deschamps (Alain Chabat) are discussing nothing more momentous than a referee’s bad call, but it takes some time before it’s clear that the two men are affiliated with the couple. Moreno is the temporary bodyguard for Castella, who’s decided he needs protection while negotiating an important deal, and Deschamps is the chauffeur for Castella’s wife, Angélique, an interior decorator whose taste is for froufrou.

Castella (Jaoui’s co-scripter and husband, Jean-Pierre Bacri) and Angélique (Christiane Millet) are quietly incompatible, but they coexist by controlling their own realms: He has his factory, and she has her home and her small but unmanageable dog. Then Angélique makes the mistake of taking her husband to the local cultural center for a performance of Racine’s Bérénice featuring the couple’s niece. The lead actress, Clara (Anne Alvaro), is the same woman Castella had no time for when she was hired to teach him English, but he views her in a entirely different light after he sees her onstage. Soon, Castella is insinuating himself into Clara’s arty circle of friends and trying harder to learn English—so he can write her a love poem. Clara, however, considers her new suitor vulgar.

Clara’s friends include a young gay painter and his middle-aged lover, who suddenly have an unlikely patron in Castella; they and Clara frequent the local cafe where Manie (Jaoui) works as a waitress. Moreno and Deschamps hang out there, too, and both develop a fondness for Manie, who disarms Deschamps by telling him they slept together a decade ago. He doesn’t remember, is dedicated to a girlfriend who’s on an internship in the United States, but is intrigued enough by Manie’s recollection that he goes to bed with her. So does Moreno, who considers marrying the waitress even though he’s an ex-cop with old-fashioned values and she’s a part-time hashish dealer. Manie doesn’t want to become a housewife, but to her surprise she finds herself considering a life with Moreno.

Formally, The Taste of Others is a comedy; not all the relationships end happily, but none are catastrophic. (The tragedy transpires onstage, in snippets of Bérénice and, later, Hedda Gabler.) The film recalls the everyday erotic roundelay of Jaoui and Bacri’s last script—for Alain Resnais’ Same Old Song—as well as a whole crop of recent multinarrative movies both American and French. In tone, however, the film is more akin to the work of Eric Rohmer. It’s a moral tale, in which members of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, and the bohemian set confront their assumptions about the others. The large number of players hinders the deep character development typical of Rohmer’s best films, and a few of the portrayals (notably Angélique) are cartoonish. The performances are assured, however, and the way that the many seemingly haphazard narrative pieces fit together in the last half-hour is a delight.

That’s worth keeping in mind, because the first half-hour is less than enthralling. The Taste of Others would be more engaging if Jaoui and Bacri had managed to keep the lively disposition of the pleasant but slight Same Old Song while pursuing this film’s more ambitious agenda. In other words, The Taste of Others is clever, perceptive, and humane, but a few more gags wouldn’t have hurt.

Worlds also collide in Crazy/Beautiful, but the basic premise doesn’t deviate from the lunchroom Romeo and Juliet scenario of a dozen teen flicks: rich/white/girl meets poor/brown/boy and they fall in love over the objections of their parents. Yet with the crucial aid of a nervy performance by a deglamorized (well, a little) Kirsten Dunst, director John Stockwell has made a film that’s a lot fresher than its plot. It almost seems a little French.

Crazy/Beautiful is not Breathless, of course, but by Touchstone standards it’s remarkably freewheeling. The crazy one is Nicole Oakley (Dunst), who’s introduced doing community service on the beach, where she and the beautiful one, Carlos Nuñez (Jay Hernandez), first make eye contact. They attend the same high school, although Nicole lives in way-upscale Pacific Palisades and Carlos commutes four hours each day from and to Boyle Heights, on L.A.’s east side, to reap the benefits of a right-side-of-the-tracks education. He wants to attend the Naval Academy; she wants to get wasted. But she also wants Carlos, so much that she risks the ridicule of her best friend, Maddy (Taryn Manning), by going to see him play football. (Score an extra point here for Crazy/Beautiful, one of the rare teen flicks that understand that cool kids do not attend their school’s football games.)

Nicole’s problems include an evil stepmother and a well-meaning but mostly useless father who happens to be a U.S. congressman (Bruce Davison). Carlos’ problems include Nicole. Sheer lust—hers—brings the kids together, and although Stockwell managed to get the PG-13 rating Touchstone required, the bedroom scenes are more credible than those of most recent teen-sex movies. The liveliest moment comes, however, during a scene in which the couple doesn’t go all the way, in part because Carlos is too distracted by Nicole’s playfully mocking explanation of her dad’s liberal attitude toward adolescent eroticism.

In Hollywood movies, of course, you have to pay a price for scenes that seem so spontaneous and irreverent—and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi proved entirely willing to pick up the tab. In its second half, the now-boring movie yields to all the clichés, moralizing, and cookie-cutter plot developments it eluded at the beginning. The script’s big crisis leads to reconciliation, of course, but what lingers about Crazy/Beautiful is not the phony warmth of its conclusion but the real heat it throws off while it’s still resisting the inevitable trip to the guidance office to discuss its attitude problem. CP